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Feb 22, 2018 10:11 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

William Michael Pitcher, Former Editor of The Southampton Press Western Edition, Dies February 21

William Michael Pitcher
Feb 28, 2018 1:00 PM

William Michael Pitcher, a passionate outdoorsman who was the longtime editor of the Hampton Chronicle-News in Westhampton Beach and its later incarnation, The Southampton Press Western Edition, died after a long period of declining health on February 21, 2018, at his apartment in a senior community in Portland, Maine. He was 67.

Named grand marshal of the Westhampton Beach St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 2012 to honor his community service, Mr. Pitcher was a founder and, for 27 years, chairman of the board of East End Hospice. With Hospice President and CEO Priscilla Ruffin, he oversaw the launch of Camp Good Grief, a program for children who have lost family members, and the opening of the Kanas Center for inpatient hospice care on Quiogue in 2016.

Stricken with juvenile diabetes when he was a student at Williams College, he never let his illness interfere with his passion for the outdoors. In 2017, his health declining, he retired as communication director of the Suffolk County Legislature, a post he had held for nearly a decade, and in October moved from his home in Westhampton Beach to Maine to be near his older brother, John, and John’s wife, Marcia, therapists who run a boutique spa there.

Mr. Pitcher is survived by two sons, Quinn, of Boston, and Casey, of Eastport. Both are graduates of Eastport-South Manor High School. Quinn is a 2015 graduate of Williams College, from which Mr. Pitcher graduated in 1972, and Casey is a 2017 graduate of St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York.

Mr. Pitcher’s greatest passions were his boys, of whom friends said he was immensely proud. But he also loved the outdoor life; East End Hospice and its mission; the New York Yankees; music; his golden retriever, Jesse, and his black Lab, Joe; and cooking and gardening—in spring, he gave away homegrown asparagus—and spicy food in particular. “I can’t believe the hot foods he ate,” said Ms. Ruffin.

He made a unique, killer salsa that he sometimes put out for newspaper colleagues at The Press. “It was the best salsa that has ever graced the Earth,” his son Quinn said.

He was an expert fly- and deep-sea fisherman, kept a duck blind on Flanders Bay, volunteered for a time at the Quogue Wildlife Refuge, and for many years traveled upstate to hunt turkey in the Catskill region.

“He used to get mad [because] the December board meeting always hit on the opening day of duck hunting season,” recalled Ms. Ruffin, who said Mr. Pitcher was on the search committee that interviewed her 28 years ago. “He arrived at the meeting in his duck shoes and left as soon as he could.”

Tim Laube, whom Mr. Pitcher hired in 1993 as a reporter for the Hampton Chronicle-News, remembers Mr. Pitcher editing his copy dressed in his boots and hunting camouflage during duck season.

“He was a truly local guy,” said Mr. Laube. “Every day, he walked from the office,” which was on Mitchell Road in Westhampton Beach Village, “to get the mail. Every single day, he’d visit store owners and talk with people on the sidewalk. He didn’t have to do that. He could have had someone in the office go pick it up. But he always said it was important to talk to everybody … I learned a lot from him. He always said if both sides get mad at you, you know you’ve done the story right.”

Joe Louchheim, now the publisher of The Press Newsgroup, first went to work in his father’s newspaper company as a reporter for Mr. Pitcher at the Chronicle-News in the early 1990s. “He was a good teacher, a great editor and mentor, and he was everything you would have thought of as a real newspaperman,” Mr. Louchheim said. “He aggressively went after the facts and taught us to know our beats and everyone on them.

“We all hung out with him—all his reporters,” Mr. Louchheim recalled. “We spent a lot of time under his wing. He taught me the finer points of tequila appreciation, and he introduced me to hunting. I spent a lot of time with him in his duck blind. He just made a very huge and favorable impression on me.”

State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. faced off against Mr. Pitcher when he ran for reelection in 2008, after Mr. Pitcher had left the newspaper business. “There were never two political candidates who liked each other more than we did,” he said. Enduring a Newsday interview with one’s opponent was often an awkward affair, Mr. Thiele said, but with Mr. Pitcher, “it was like old home week.”

His brother, John, said of Mr. Pitcher: “He was smart, a voracious reader, a quick wit, and he definitely was very proud of his sons.”

He and Mr. Pitcher’s ex-wife, Laurie Decker Pitcher of Eastport, both recalled that for years Mr. Pitcher did The New York Times crossword, including the Sunday puzzle—in ink, in a matter of minutes.

“He was one of the smartest people I’ve met, and one of the funniest,” said Joseph Shaw, executive editor of the Press News Group, who worked with Mr. Pitcher through the end of his newspaper career. “He inspired so many young reporters and showed them what a true journalist looked like.”

William Michael Pitcher was born in New York City on December 17, 1950, to Evelyn Davis Low Pitcher and David Ellsworth Pitcher, a lawyer with the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate Division during World War II. He had met his English wife at the Nuremberg trials, to which he had been assigned; she had served as a secretary to the American delegation. Mr. Pitcher later went on to become a partner in Corbin, Bennett & Delahanty, a New York law firm.

Michael, as he was known, and older brother John were raised in East Norwich, Long Island, and attended Oyster Bay High School, where Michael, a member of the Class of 1968, was a National Merit Scholar. He went on to his father’s alma mater, Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he would meet several lifelong friends, including Ernie Wolfe, now an expert on African art with a gallery in Los Angeles, and Andrew Botsford of Quogue, formerly an editor of the Hampton Chronicle-News and, later, associate editor of The Southampton Press. He encouraged Mr. Pitcher after college to find newspaper work on the East End.

At Williams, Mr. Pitcher had already developed his passion for hunting and fishing, which his brother said probably had been inspired by a much admired grand-uncle, who was an outdoorsman, as well as trips the boys took flounder fishing with their father on a rented rowboat in Oyster Bay. There were woods and fields near their home, John said, and their father bought them shotguns for bird hunting when they were teenagers, even though he wasn’t a hunter himself.

Mr. Botsford remembered wanting to be “a hippy” and avoid what he called the preppy crowd at Williams, and in Mr. Pitcher, he said, “I recognized a kindred spirit and a first-rate mind.”

Already an experienced saltwater fisherman from his summers in Quogue, Mr. Botsford would learn freshwater fishing from Michael in the Berkshires and, later on, upland bird hunting at other locales.

“The combination of aesthetic appreciation as well as intellectual appreciation” inspired Michael’s passions, Mr. Botsford said. “There was a spiritual aesthetic connection for him to literature and to music and to hunting and fishing.”

His taste in music was “discerning and eclectic and wide-ranging,” Mr. Botsford said, “all rock —including Hendrix, Clapton, Traffic, Fleetwood Mac and more obscure bands like Family, though he was not a huge fan of the Grateful Dead; and lots of jazz: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, and Pat Metheny; to blues and the alt country of Uncle Tupelo.”

Mr. Wolfe, reminiscing about Michael, said he was “such a beautiful person.” During college, Mr. Wolfe lived with him one summer near Williamstown to fish. Driving a used Land Rover he had bought in Vermont, Mr. Wolfe said, “We’d go up to a place called Sucker Pond and catch smallmouth bass, and it was complete magic. I’d never been fishing in a place like that, and Pitcher was just so much better at it than I was, and I had so much to learn from him.”

Years later, when he was preparing the announcement of his first child’s birth, Mr. Wolfe sent it to Mr. Pitcher to edit, as he would do with many African arts articles he went on to write. “I called it ‘Whoppers of the Week,’” Mr. Wolfe said of the birth announcement, a joking reference to the big catches highlighted by Mr. Pitcher in the fishing column he wrote for the Hampton Chronicle-News.

After college, Mr. Pitcher and Mr. Botsford both intended to find jobs teaching or doing newspaper work in the Pittsfield or Bennington areas, but fire destroyed the old farmhouse where they were living off-campus. Mr. Pitcher headed west and lived for a time near Vail, Colorado, where Mr. Botsford and a girlfriend paid a visit and engaged in a memorable debate about the ethics of hunting. It left Mr. Botsford convinced that, just as he accepted killing fish for the dinner table, in order to legitimize his status as a carnivore, he would have to accept the ethics of hunting for food.

Mr. Botsford soon landed a job selling ad space for The Southampton Press in Southampton and convinced Mr. Pitcher to stay with him in Quogue and look for a newspaper job. After returning east, he worked briefly for a weekly paper in Glen Cove but moved to Quogue and landed a reporting job at the Shelter Island Reporter. He later became its editor, making up the paper every Wednesday in the production department of The Southampton Press, where Mr. Botsford worked.

Mr. Pitcher’s coverage of the Shelter Island police chief’s controversial purchase of automatic weapons for his department garnered national media attention.

In 1977, he and Mr. Botsford both quit their jobs to go camping, hunting and fishing in Wyoming, northern California and British Columbia. Returning to the East End, he was hired by Press publisher Donald Louchheim to edit the Hampton Chronicle-News, later The Southampton Press Western Edition, where he would remain for 26 years.

Mr. Pitcher married Laurie Decker, an assistant editor at The Press at the time, in 1986. The couple lived in Eastport, where they purchased a house on South Bay Avenue. The marriage ended in divorce.

After Mr. Pitcher left newspaper work around 2004, his former reporter, Tim Laube, then an aide to Democratic Suffolk County Legislator William J. Lindsey, urged Mr. Lindsey to “scoop up” Mr. Pitcher for public relations work.

Mr. Pitcher became public information officer for Brookhaven Town Supervisor Brian Foley, a Democrat, in March 2005. That fall, Mr. Pitcher ran on the Democratic line for Southampton Town Board, coming in third in a four-way race for two seats.

After Republicans regained control of the Brookhaven Town Board in 2007, they declined to reappoint Mr. Pitcher. In 2008, after he was appointed director of communications for the Suffolk County Legislature, he “walked the plank” for the county Democrats, as Mr. Laube put it, by filling a candidate slot as the challenger to Mr. Thiele, the popular Republican and Independence Party candidate, who won reelection in a landslide.

Mr. Laube, who carpooled with Mr. Pitcher to their county jobs for years, said he “had a lot of influence with the legislators,” advising them how to handle the media. “Michael had a calming influence on people,” he said. “He told them there are always two sides to an issue, and always to think it through” before making public pronouncements.

“Michael was a very talented guy who was part of the legislature’s family,” commented DuWayne Gregory of Copiague, presiding officer of the legislature and candidate for U.S. Congress, after hearing the news of Mr. Pitcher’s death last week. “We’re all hurting right now.”

Throughout his career, his devotion to East End Hospice was steadfast. Laurie Pitcher recalled it all started when Michael expressed an interest in attending an early meeting around 1990. “He decided he wanted to be a part of it,” she said.

Of her years working with Mr. Pitcher, Ms. Ruffin said, “We had great fun. The beginning years were a lot of fun. There was a lot of energy and enthusiasm. We were all into protecting what was the mission and what we needed to do,” including fundraising. Mr. Pitcher attended the annual fundraising gala at the Sandacres Estate on Quiogue every year, she said, until failing health interfered last year.

“He was exceedingly proud of what went on here,” she said. “We made a good partnership in getting it done. He was a quick study, which was always appreciated.”

She said he needed little backgrounding or handling. “I think that was the newspaperman in him. He just kind of filtered things out very quickly.”

But “the last couple of years were very rough for him,” she added. “He very much wanted to keep going until the Kanas Center was up and running.” When it opened two years ago, “He and I were hiding in a little anteroom, watching the first patients being brought in—we were all just grinning from ear to ear. He and I were, like, ‘Oh my God—we did it!’”

Mr. Thiele called the Kanas Center opening “the pinnacle of Michael’s time at East End Hospice.”

A memorial service will be held at a location and date to be announced, when his ashes will be spread on the marshes where he hunted.

The family asked that memorial donations be made to Camp Good Grief, c/o East End Hospice, P.O. Box 1048, Westhampton Beach, NY 11978-7048.

During a fishing trip west, Mr. Pitcher kept a journal that, years later, he spent time polishing and editing, according to his son, Quinn, who provided these extracts:

“It was good to be going anyway. I love the mountains, I love the space, I love to be alone and I love to catch trout.”

“I wonder whether I’d rather be an expert striper fisherman or accomplished writer. The two seem to have nothing in common when I look at them on paper. It’s very confusing.”

“A fisherman, sure; a human in love and being loved, certainly; a bewildered soul, at times; a total misanthrope, occasionally.”

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We’ve lost a fine editor and a great citizen. Mike Pitcher’s invaluable service to East End Hospice was in the best tradition of volunteerism. We need more like him.
By Turkey Bridge (1844), Quiogue on Feb 22, 18 3:52 PM
2 members liked this comment
Michael Pitcher was a tremendous, good guy. Great editor and community leader. His stewardship of East End Hospice set it on a good footing and ensured Important help for those in need. May he Rest In Peace. Lots of prayers and sympathies to his family.
By JimmyKBond (155), Hampton Bays on Feb 22, 18 9:47 PM
1 member liked this comment
Happy trails Mike....see you on the other side....catch em up!!...Victor
By victorc (3), Southampton on Feb 23, 18 9:42 AM
1 member liked this comment
So sad. Mike was a true supporter for folks on the East End.
By Yes we can (16), Eastport on Feb 23, 18 1:47 PM
1 member liked this comment
So Sorry to Hear ,my thoughts are with his family and friends .
By Shock (40), on Feb 24, 18 11:47 PM
The updated obit is beautifully written, as befits the fine soul who has left us with a bounty of good deeds by which to remember him.

Rest In Peace, Michael.
By PBR (4868), Southampton on Feb 26, 18 1:10 PM
A real gentleman. Knew him from the press and shooting sports.
He will be missed...
By knitter (1289), Southampton on Feb 28, 18 1:09 PM
If only every one went about life and community with the same positive enthusiasm. Fine intelligent man. Fun. Remember him fondly from the Press.
By AL (62), southampton on Feb 28, 18 6:39 PM
This is so sad to read. I worked at the Press in the late 90's when Mike was the editor of the HCN / Press Western Edition. He was a great guy and always good for a laugh.
By Rich Morey (324), East Hampton on Mar 2, 18 6:19 PM